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To collect a greater percentage of unpaid child support, state must fund transition to a better system

I’m a county law librarian. A typical day starts with a box of tissue on my desk and a neutral demeanor carefully placed on my face.

I’m a county law librarian. A typical day starts with a box of tissue on my desk and a neutral demeanor carefully placed on my face. If you heard what I listen to every day, you’d want both too.

“I can’t understand why he won’t support his children.”

“I lost my job and I need to lower my child support.”

“I want to pay zero child support.”

Why are these people coming to me? They can’t afford a lawyer. With fewer free and low-cost legal services available, public law libraries are increasingly serving unrepresented parents by providing court forms, procedural assistance, and many times a shoulder to cry on.

I do my best to be the law library version of Switzerland, believe me. But occasionally, even I have my moments. For instance, whenever someone tells me he or she wants to pay zero child support, and I find myself wondering out loud what their children will eat, that’s when I know it’s time to take a vacation.

About $1.65 billion owed in back child support

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But I’m the lucky one — I get to take a vacation from these problems. According to a state legislative report this year, around $1.65 billion in back child support is owed in open child-support cases.

If you think there is an easy solution — just go after these people — then you need to know more about how we collect child support and what it costs. There are many partners in the collection of child support: county attorney offices; human services; the judiciary; private employers processing child support payments; and county officials.

According to the Child Support Enforcement Division, most of the back child support is uncollectible: approximately $1.1 billion. Why? The people who owe it are on general assistance, or are in prison, or have a history of declaring bankruptcy. Or they go to Canada or Mexico or another foreign country and can’t be tracked. The vast majority — 84 percent of the total amount owed — is more than one year old.

Currently, the federal government contributes about 75 percent of the state’s total child-support-enforcement funding. The state and the counties take on the rest. If Minnesota meets certain benchmarks set by the federal government, we receive additional financial incentives. If Minnesota collects $5 in child support for every dollar it spends for enforcement, we receive extra federal money. Unfortunately, we missed out on that incentive. In fiscal year 2009, we only collected $3.71 for every dollar spent. That ranks us 45th among the states for cost effectiveness.

Texas has the best track record for cost-effectiveness. In 2009 Texas collected $9.80 for each dollar it spent. What does Texas do that we don’t? Texas centralizes child-support collections and automates certain collection procedures.

Recommendations for improvement
In 2008, Minnesota hired a consultant to review the child-support-enforcement processes and make recommendations for improvement, determining that for consistency across the counties, state administration of child support programs is the best approach. We also need more automated procedures and to streamline services.

But all of this means the Legislature needs to fund that transition to a more cost-effective system.

Some may balk at spending more money on child-support enforcement. However, with improved, cost-effective collection methods, Minnesota will qualify for further federal incentives and the counties and state ultimately will be spending less money on enforcement.

Consider that one out of four women in Minnesota is living in poverty and that part of this poverty problem is nonpayment of child support. We would save money as a state by helping mothers become financially self-sufficient. We’d also take the pressure off the court system from some of poverty’s resultant problems, including crime and juvenile delinquency.

Until then, I’ve still got my box of tissue but I’m struggling with the neutral demeanor.

Brenda Wolfe is a suburban/rural county law librarian in Minnesota.